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Striking balance between PR & Comms and journalism

Obituaries
Public relations and communications professionals rely on their journalistic connections to help get their messages out, and journalists draw from public relations and communications to help find interesting stories, fill quotas and meet deadlines. In fact, public relations professionals tend to interact more with journalist than with any other professional group.

Public relations and communications as well as journalism exist in an uneasy balancing act, a relationship where they both rely on each other as part of a communication ecosystem.

It used to be that journalism was the stronger player in the relationship, but now as a result of cuts to newsrooms, public relations and communications is becoming more dominant, and this relationship could undermine already limited trust in news.

PR & communications and journalism

Public relations and Communications is defined as a practice of using communication strategies to build relationships between organisations (such as corporations, institutions and government) and the public.

Traditionally, one of the most important connections for public relations and communications practitioners has been those with journalism.

Public relations and communications professionals rely on their journalistic connections to help get their messages out, and journalists draw from public relations and communications to help find interesting stories, fill quotas and meet deadlines. In fact, public relations professionals tend to interact more with journalist than with any other professional group.

This relationship worked for many years because journalists had the upper hand. Journalists had a culture that made them wary of public relations and communications professional which helped to keep the public relations and communications industry in check. When interacting with public relations and communications, journalists would choose whether to pursue a story, and how much of the story suggested by the public relations and  communications professional is actually worthy of column space or broadcast time. Journalists were likely to seek out different sides of an issue suggested by a PR & communications professional, rather than just publishing a news release verbatim.

In return, the PR and communications professionals could be reasonably confident the coverage would be trusted by the public. By choosing what to cover and how to cover it, journalism keeps PR and communications accountable. If PR and communications practitioners do anything to threaten their relationship with news outlets, they will not be able to work effectively.

However, in recent years, as a result of media consolidation and the rise of social media, the relationship between PR and communications and journalism has shifted.

While this shift seems to favour public relations and communications, in reality it has resulted in declining trust in news, and that’s bad for everyone.

When the delicate balance between journalism and PR Communications is upset, we end up with an information ecosystem that is less trustworthy because it is driven by organisational goals rather than the public interest.

A shifting balance in PR communications and journalism

Now journalism is increasingly relying on public relations and communications to survive. As many previous work has shown, local news is facing unprecedented pressure from media consolidated and the social media business.

As journalism jobs have dried up across the globe, many talented and trained journalism graduates and successful journalist are now accepting jobs in public relations and communication.

At the same time, many cash-strapped newsrooms are turning to advertorials or sponsored content to make up for  shrinking revenues as a result, more of the news media is implicated in spreading PR and communications that is often one-sided, incomplete information that favours corporate PR and communications clients.

For example, when important information like Covid-19 vaccine efficacy is presented to the public directly from news releases, important scientific facts can be minimized or left out of the portrayal of the issue.

That can contribute to eroding public trust in both the news story and the organisation covered by it while public relations and communications plays a role in ensuring the trust between organisations and the public at  large. Some PR and communications practices can lead to the decline in trust in news.

Other grey area PR and communications tactics, like astroturfing, direct media attention to stories that journalists might not otherwise consider very newsworthy.

Astroturfing entails using social media to create fake online grassroots support for an organisation. News outlets often cover a story that seems to be getting a lot of attention on social media. Unethical PR and communications firms will often exploit this fact by buying likes, shares and engagements, creating fake hype for a specific product, person or organisation that would otherwise not be covered at all.

Rethinking the relationship

Journalism isn’t perfect, but striking the balance between PR and communications and journalism is beneficial for both parties. As this balance shifts in favour of public relations, it becomes harder for the public to trust news. That leads to more aggressive PR and communications tactics, further eroding the public trust. Everyone loses.

Steps can be taken to rebalance the relationship between journalism and PR and  communications. Journalism must be strengthened, including local news, so that journalists have the resources to refuse sponsored content and push back against PR and communications pitches.